Are you using the right teaching tools?
It contains possibilities of all kinds, including possibilities for engagement, joy, inquiry, and for transformation in learning. Our challenge as teachers is to enable these possibilities for our students, to activate a process that leaves our students feeling knowledgeable, capable, and inspired.
Do you have the best tools for the job? Do you have the tools that can unleash the power of curriculum?
What are cognitive tools?
No matter their age, our students come to us with active emotional and imaginative lives. They all frequently and routinely think about the world in ways that evoke their emotions and imaginations. For example, they universally enjoy stories or narratives of all kinds. They all enjoy jokes and humour. They all identify patterns in the world around them. Many are fascinated by extremes of experience and limits of reality–the stuff in the Guinness Book of World Records. Many associate with heroes and even idolize people, ideas, or institutions. Many start collecting things and obsess over hobbies. Words cause images to arise in all of their minds. They all enjoy a good mystery and can be left awestruck by unanswered questions or strange events. Our older students may enjoy abstract ideas and theories that represent them. Some seek ways to enact change in their environments. I could go on and on; our students’ emotional and imaginative lives manifest themselves in many varied ways.
These different forms of engagement are not insignificant; they are actually ways of thinking that help human beings learn. In Imaginative Education we call these features of our imaginative and emotional lives “cognitive tools“–they are emotional and imaginative ways human beings make meaning in the world. (**Read more about cognitive tools at the bottom of this post.)
Cognitive tools are the best tools available for making whatever you teach both meaningful and memorable. Cognitive tools will unleash the latent power in your curriculum.
Why ignore the features of students’ imaginative lives so active outside your classroom? Doesn’t it make more sense to carry those activities into your teaching?
3 reasons why cognitive tools unleash the power of curricula
#1 Cognitive tools improve memory & stimulate meaning.
In other words, using a cognitive tool to teach something makes it easier for your students to remember the topic.
Ted Hughes once called cognitive tools “little factories of understanding”–this is a great metaphor for describing what cognitive tools do for our minds. Using cognitive tools in your teaching–the story-form, humanization of meaning, jokes & humour, collections & hobbies and more–will have a profound impact on students; they will leave students feeling an emotional connection of some kind with the content. The curriculum content within students’ minds is now tied up with the generative what if feature of the imagination. IQRemix via Compfight
For example, if you embed the learning of a mathematical theorem within a conversation about a great controversy around that idea (Revolt and Idealism tool) or within the context of the mathematician struggling to propose a new idea (Humanization of Meaning tool) or within a vivid image of how that theorem works or was discovered (Mental Imagery Evoked From Words tool) then you tie up emotion and imagination with the theorem itself. (See many more examples of cognitive tools applied to subject matter in the Tools of Imagination series or within various lesson and unit plans on the Imaginative Education Research Group website. Or check out this instruction table of cognitive tools.)
The great thing about cognitive tools, too, is that all of your students are already using them to make sense of the world. Rather than teaching students to use them, your job is to engage these already active features of their minds.
#2 Cognitive tools ignite YOUR passion.
Successful teaching requires an engaged teacher as much as an engaged student. Cognitive tools will ignite your passion for learning as much as your students. Take a few minutes and see what I mean. Simply pick a cognitive tool from those listed in the Tools of Imagination Series or Tips for Imaginative Educators. Read what the tool is about and see how you might use it to teach something in your curriculum. Sure, you might need to think differently about your topic (e.g. see Tip #8 Seek Heroic Qualities or Tip #2 Find A Source of Dramatic Tension), but that’s where you can spark your own curiosity. Cognitive tools engage your passion. They set the stage for you to engage your students.
#3 Cognitive tools power critical, creative, & collaborative thinking.
The goals of schools are varied and have always been contested–you prioritize initiatives differently depending on your view of the purpose of education. But few would disagree with the need to educate students to be good thinkers. That is to say, to have the critical, creative and collaborative thinking skills required to navigate the high-tech, multi-cultural and multi-modal world. At the end of the day, good thinking–the kinds of skills we describe as “21st century skills”–all require rich and flexible use of cognitive tools. The more we tie up knowledge of all kinds with the features of the human imagination, the more we support the ability for our students to think well.
Use Cognitive Tools To Unleash The Power of Curriculum
The meaning of “curriculum” is changing. For many years it was simply the content–the stuff–to get through in a course of study. Thankfully, few people still hold this parochial view. Educators understand the complexity of the teaching-learning process, the complexity of “curriculum”. They understand that covering topics over the course of a school year is not as important for the overall intellectual wellbeing of the child as uncovering relationships of all kinds–relationships between topics (all knowledge is connected), relationships between students and knowledge (enabling curiosity, inquiry, feelings of autonomy), relationships between students (the power of collaboration and mentorship in learning) etc. They understand that curriculum is a fascinating network of processes and possibilities.
Curricula is increasingly being shaped differently to reflect this new understanding. The new BC Curriculum is an example of this. The learner is not seen as a regurgitator of knowledge, but one who should be inspired to learn more, to make more connections, to dig deeper, to research, to understand on their own terms. The new BC curriculum offers space for teachers to decide how to support students in engaging with ideas in ways that leave them thinking and empowered. There is a more widespread sense of curriculum as process and as shared between students and teachers. (Image IQRemix via Compfight)
Finding entry points into anything “new” can be challenging–I hope I’ve convinced you that cognitive tools is a good place to start. If you want to unleash the power of your curriculum the best way to do so is to equip your cognitive toolkit.
A cognitive tools approach to teaching is an easy and effective way to unleash the latent power of curriculum–to engage, enable, and inspire students.
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**Here’s a bit more about cognitive tools:
Cognitive tools are the features of the human mind that help us to learn and remember. The main thing a cognitive tools does is tie up some bit of knowledge with emotion and imagination. In doing so, that knowledge becomes more meaningful and memorable.
As soon as human beings began to speak they invented “thinking” tools to help them use language to remember things–it was of great cultural value, of course, to be able to remember traditions, stories, knowledge. So you find many examples of these cognitive tools in myths: the story-form, vivid imagery, use of rhyme, rhythm or pattern, evocation of a sense of mystery and more. Similarly, when written language came along, human beings invented ways of thinking to help them make sense of the world using different symbol systems. Our literate students develop an interest in extremes of reality and limits of experience, humanization of meaning and demonstrate ongoing narrative structuring of events in their lives. As language-using members of our culture, all of our students are actively using cognitive tools all the time as they make meaning of the world around them. (That was a warp speed introduction; you can learn more about cognitive tools on the IERG website or on this blog through the Tools of Imagination Series.)